Since last fall, the nation has fixated on the sexual abuses and subsequent downfall of the Hollywood elite—inspiring millions of posts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #MeToo. But college students and faculty already knew what the rest of the country is just coming to accept—sexual assault is widespread and pervasive throughout society, especially on college campuses. For student activists, conversations surrounding sexual violence, consent, and harassment have been ongoing long before the flood of media coverage began.
“Students may be talking more about it, but really we are just getting more attention and being covered more,” said Menosh Z.A., a student and the director of Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Activists at the University of Washington. “There is more vocabulary around it but these conversations have always been happening.”
Student discussions surrounding #MeToo hinge on two essential questions: What can students do to accomplish change, and what can universities do on an administrative level to support victims of sexual violence?
Rachel Gerstenfeld, the UW coordinator for Green Dot, a violence prevention training program, believes that “we need to be making choices big and small that in the end create a culture less tolerant of violence.” She strongly believes that more students need to take an active role in preventing violence on campus and develop the skills to speak up and interrupt potential acts of violence.
“I think it would be good to focus on accountability and prevention and potential perpetrators rather than potential victims,” Z.A. said. “We talk so much about what to do when something happens rather than how to stop it in the first place.”
In addition to work being done by students, many believe that there should be funding for more prevention on campus, and that universities should have required training for students throughout all four years of college, not only during freshman orientation. According to Gerstenfeld, less than 1 percent of students go through Green Dot training.
Much of how universities approach sexual assault on campus is dictated by Title IX—a federal law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972—that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Under Title IX and the Clery Act, schools have an obligation to inform victims of their reporting options and provide accommodations for students.
Under President Obama, the administration made sexual violence on campus a priority. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a 19-page document (colloquially known as the “Dear Colleague” letter) which spelled out colleges’ responsibility to respond promptly and equitably to reports of sexual violence. The letter made it clear that the federal government would aggressively police that obligation, marking a new era of strict enforcement.
“We are the first administration to make it clear that sexual assault is not just a crime, it can be a violation of a woman’s civil rights,” said Vice President Joe Biden during a 2011 speech.
In September 2017, current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rolled back many of the Obama-era protections that were implemented in recent years, citing concerns that the current policy denies due process to those accused. This has created a problem for some university Title IX officers, as coordinators are unsure of how to proceed until new guidelines are released.
One of the main points of contention between faculty, administration, and students is how different university choose to implement Title IX regarding required reporting of sexual assaults. When the “Dear Colleague” letter was released in 2011, many universities chose to adopt blanket policies on reporting, meaning that if a faculty member hears of an instance of sexual assault or violence by a student, they are required to report it to the university. Theoretically, this would ensure schools get as much information as possible. But schools across the nation received pushback from faculty who believed that these policies violated the confidential relationships they have with students.
At Seattle U, faculty and staff are required to report any incidents of sexual misconduct they become aware of to the school’s Title IX coordinator. These include instances of sexual assault, dating or domestic violence, stalking, or harassment. The policy exempts those who work in counseling and psychological services, campus ministry, a member of the clergy who is serving as a counselor, and the Student Health Center. However, students aren’t forced to move forward with an investigation or adjudication process if they are not comfortable.
Seattle U’s Title IX Coordinator Andrea Katahira emphasized that the students are at the heart of this policy, saying the goal is to “care for their safety and well-being and let them know what resources are available.”
“What we want is student survivors to confide in someone they can trust, and we want them to have as much agency as possible as to who knows their information, but there are some faculty and students who would like a more nuanced policy,” Katahira said.
UW’s policy “strongly encourages” reporting, meaning faculty and staff are instructed to listen to students, ask if they have concerns about their safety, and let them know if they are going to contact SafeCampus.
“To us the most important thing is to discern how to get in touch with the student and prioritize giving students the choice of when to proceed,” UW Title IX Coordinator Kate Leonard said.
Students have raised concerns that a blanket reporting policy takes agency away from survivors of sexual assault.
“Mandatory reporting is a problem that isn’t being talked about as much as it should be,” said Ashley Vera, a Seattle U student and a leader of the student group Survivor Support Network. She expressed concern that faculty aren’t getting enough training when it comes to required reporting.
“When someone is sexually violated or victimized, all their control is taken away,” said one UW student and employee, who wanted her identity to be protected. “When you force someone to make a report, you are exerting control over them again. It’s up to the survivor to make the choice.”
The University of Oregon—in response to faculty and student concerns over a blanket required reporting policy—rolled out a unique new policy this past September that categorizes reporting into three categories: designated reporters, student-directed employees, and confidential employees. This policy is intended to remedy some of the pushback expressed by students like Vera.
“Many felt that blanket policies were more harmful to survivors of sexual violence than beneficial,” said UO Title IX Coordinator Darci Heroy. “If our goal is to create a safe space to share information, we got the message loud and clear that students felt they didn’t have control over reporting before. At the end of the day, we want to help people finish their education, finish college, help students have access to the benefits of Title IX.”
Students and administration alike both echoed that although #MeToo has been a catalyst for bringing these discussions to the forefront of people’s consciousnesses, nothing will change without follow through and substantive action from student activists working hand-in-hand with university administrations.
“Unless we actually follow that talk with unifying action, we’re not going to see a huge difference in the numbers,” Gerstenfeld said. “We’re still going to have high rates of sexual assault on campus, and right now we’re not doing enough to address it. We all need to have a role in violence prevention. Everyone has to make the culture safe and supportive, Talking about something is not enough. We have to put action into it—doing nothing is making a choice.”